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Vietnam Service Is but a Memory, Except During Races


As a 25-year-old, Gray Davis accepted service in Vietnam with resignation, as a duty and the fulfillment of an obligation he made to the Reserve Officer Training Corps. He spent six months and 25 days in Vietnam without fanfare but with competence and modesty. And as he reflects on it today, it is with care not to exaggerate his role, along with pride in the service he performed.

But his memories of military service are philosophical and ideological, not personal: Davis can't recall the name of his commanding officer, does not keep in touch with anyone from those days, much as he has shed his college friends. He attends events for veterans but ignores reunions of his old comrades.

"I don't go--just like I haven't been able to do justice to the people I went to school with," he said in a recent interview. "But I do--if I get an invitation to do something. I mean, I went out of my way to help raise money for the construction of the Vietnam Memorial on the Capitol grounds, and went to several fund-raising events to help do that, made sure I was there when it was dedicated."

In Vietnam, Davis adds: "I pretty much kept to myself."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 12, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 344 words Type of Material: Correction
Gov. Gray Davis--A story in Section A on Thursday on Gov. Gray Davis' military service during the Vietnam War erroneously identified a location in that country as Long Ben. It should have said Long Binh. The story also misstated the year of Davis' victory over Republican Dan Lungren as 1988. It was 1998.

If the war did not leave its impression in that sense, it did, Davis says, sear him politically. It was in Vietnam that he rubbed elbows with poor men, most of them minorities, who were drafted into that conflict. By the end of his tour, Davis, raised an upper-crust Republican, had become a determined Democrat.

"I was pretty naive growing up, and I just thought everyone did their duty," Davis said in 1998. "America was fighting a war; everyone kind of had to share the burden. The burden of this war fell disproportionately on minorities and whites who were less well-educated. That's why I'm a Democrat."

Those democratic impulses did not drive Davis to Vietnam. He was compelled by a simpler issue: His family ran out of money while he was in college. His father abandoned Davis and his mother and four younger siblings while Davis was a student at Stanford University.

To stay in school, Davis began working as a waiter and joined the local ROTC for its monthly stipend.

It was a painless commitment when first made. It was 1960, and the war in Vietnam was still nascent, confined to a few American advisors in a faraway conflict, unknown to most of the nation.

Davis used the money to help complete college and then to attend law school at Columbia University. But when he was finished there, it was 1967, the United States was fully engaged in the Vietnam War and his number was up.

He was sent to Long Ben, and assigned to the Signal Corps. His work--maintaining radio communications among the troops--required him to shuttle across dangerous areas by helicopter, though not to engage in infantry combat.

Asked whether he was ever in a difficult spot, Davis says: "On a few occasions, yes. I don't want to overstate the case, but whatever was happening at the division headquarters or the maneuver brigade headquarters I was visiting, I was a part of. A couple of times we were under rocket attacks, a couple of times in Long Ben."

Through the winter of 1968 and the spring and summer of 1969, Davis spent his time shuttling radio equipment in and out of combat areas. Even from there, he says now, he could see the limits of the war.

"It became clear to me that we were just basically guarding facilities we already had possession of," he says. "We were not advancing on the enemy."

Davis kept his head down, did his work. He says he never saw evidence of drug use, never witnessed any racial tension. His Bronze Star was awarded for meritorious service. Nearly seven months later, he flew home, satisfied that he had done his job.

"I feel I did my duty," he says. "I did what my country asked--I signed a piece of paper. I committed myself to serve. I served."

He returned to find veterans, including himself, spit at--though he offers no details. He was torn by the student protests, increasingly sympathetic to the contention that the war was unwinnable, angry that veterans were blamed for decisions made by political leaders.

He shrugged it off, and now says he is pleased to see veterans hailed again. Vietnam helped make Davis a Democrat. It also gave him a shield against future Republicans.

In 1988, Davis scrapped his way through a primary against better-funded opponents and earned the right to run against Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, a conservative whose appeal ran strongest in agricultural areas and Republican-leaning suburbs. But Lungren was vulnerable in at least one sense: He had never served in Vietnam, because of a knee injury.

Through that campaign, Davis repeatedly tweaked Lungren for his lack of service, sometimes by specific mentions of it, more often by merely touting his own and suggesting the contrast.

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